Journalist Tim Pool; “We have handed over the public square to private companies. These companies can now decide who gets to participate in political debate. This is where most people debate and share ideas and now we have no right to the public discussion.”

by AssuredlyAThrowAway

Putting aside the content of any given act of censorship (although the Alex Jones situation is certainly what drove the above quote), the insight of Tim Pool’s statement reflects a nuanced understanding as to the more fundamental (and terrifying) shift currently occurring with regards the form of the public sphere.

What used to be an amorphous concept, defined by the participation of individual human beings, is slowly shifting into a privatized realm with boundaries demarcated by a select few monied factions. This, in turn, undermines the very purpose of a shared public space accessible to all. In that regard, the legitimacy of representative democracy itself is at stake, as only through the free exchange of ideas and information can the standing of the individual person be engendered in the larger social, civil and political context.

In that way, for small groups of private companies to abscond from that central principle, simply because ideas make some uncomfortable, is a bastardization of the ethos of free flowing information which brought rise to their original dominance.

That said, in no way am I advocating for complete anarchy with regards what statements should be allowed into the public discourse (it has always been the case that certain actions would be entirely unwelcome in the town square, be it running naked or shouting fire in a crowded theater). The very nature of those exclusions is rooted in a common sense prohibition on imminent physical danger caused by one’s words, and rightfully serves as a buffer to protect the community at large from wanton or reckless behavior.

To those ends, when private companies are entrusted with the task of overseeing the public sphere there exists a duty to remove some content (such as terrorist recruitment videos, snuff films, child pornography, etc). Doing so, out of a respect for a common sense recognition that some behaviors have no place in the public sphere, is not only justified, it is necessary within a free and open society.

However, these same companies also (rightfully) show a strong aversion to embracing or admitting to the policing of content or viewpoints expressed on their platform (to put this in other terms; if youtube removes a terrorist recruitment video, they are not per se removing the video due to the beliefs of those who posted the content, but instead due to the fact that the aim of the video is to increase acts of terrorism.)

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This paradox, and the danger of allowing private companies to make decisions as to where to draw the line, is what risks destroying the public sphere itself.

Currently the framework guiding the decisions made by social media companies as to the moderation of content versus the moderation of behavior is supposed to be legal more so than ideological; the platforms in question, those which control the public forum at large, are only able to operate under a legal “safe harbor” as a “shared public forum” if they fundamentally respect all viewpoints in a content neutral manner. To do otherwise would be to engage in editorialization, which would thus bring said companies under a more strict legal scrutiny as to the content posted on their platform (something that those companies want to avoid at all costs). However, as enforcement of that safe harbor is left to outdated statutes and out of touch lawmakers, the final arbiter of the distinction ends up being the private companies themselves.

Clearly walking such a high stakes tight rope should not be at the discretion of these companies alone, as such self-oversight opens the door to a conflict of interest, encouraging these companies to “have their cake and eat it as well” by way of censoring content behind the veil of “moderating dangerous behavior”. To that end, it is imperative that a regulatory framework be devised (beyond simply revoking the safe harbor status of social media sites) in order to safe guard the very core of representative democracy from the arbitrary, closed source, and veiled decision making processes of large technology companies.

Some may suggest that there is a danger in taking such an approach, due to the risk of government causing more harm than good even with the best of intentions. However, after situations like the one which unfolded today (wherein the flow of information was clearly targeted based on its content, yet removed on the basis of “threatening behavior”), it becomes clear that entrusting a group of private monied factions to make such a monumental decision in the context of a democratic republic is entirely abhorrent to the friend of popular government and learned statesman alike.

As Madison himself noted so eloquently in Federalist no. 10, it is very much the role of government to make just these types of interventions when the Republic itself is threatened by a conflagration of powerful monied groups;

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations. The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected. Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail.

Thus it is clear that, shall the public sphere itself continue to survive (be it in the American Republic or elsewhere), there must be some semblance of structural prohibition on small groups of powerful monied factions being handed unchecked authority as to the censorship of content within the public sphere. To do otherwise would be to give up on the Enlightenment project, and thus the autonomy of man himself (along with his thoughts) would be lost.

*I apologize for the long rant; this was intended to be a short reflection on Tim Pool’s quote from the title, and ended up a bit longer (and perhaps less organized) than expected. In any event, thanks for reading.


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